Your View: ARHA must be held more accountable by city council

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Your View: ARHA must be held more accountable by city council
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By Leslie Zupan, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
At a recent Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority-city council work session on Ramsey Homes, disturbing points emerged that should cause Alexandrians concern.

The first involves the proposed rezoning, which was voted on again on March 12. ARHA missed the deadline for this year’s low-income housing tax credit cycle, and city planning staff proposed a new schedule that envisions a final development special use permit being submitted to planning commission and city council in September, after a series of the usual “community outreach” meetings designed to simulate the appearance of compromise with the surrounding neighborhood without any of the real political effort.

Yet ARHA and City Councilors Justin Wilson and John Taylor Chapman seemed determined to push through the rezoning now, though it is not consistent with city policy or practice to do so without the final DSUP. This anomaly was noted by planning commissioner Stewart Dunn at their hearing on Ramsay Homes in early February, resulting in his abstention on the rezoning vote.

And Mayor Allison Silberberg asked Wilson three times why it was not reasonable to wait until September and follow normal procedures by submitting the rezoning request along with the DSUP for approval. In essence, Wilson brushed Silberberg off.

This is not surprising given the rivalries among local Democrats, but it does beg the question: Why does the rezoning need to be split off and approved in such haste?

Second, there was an emphasis there would be no official memorandum of understanding as there was in 2008 with the James Bland redevelopment. An MOU is the only tool that the city has to ensure accountability and cooperation from the notoriously recalcitrant ARHA, which regularly places its collective hand in Alexandria taxpayers’ pockets for loans and bailouts. Is this because Wilson and Chapman, as council’s work group delegates, do not wish to hold
ARHA accountable?

They were both members of city council last fall when that body voted to override the BAR decision on demolition while calling for the public housing authority to find compromise, yet they and the ARHA board allowed CEO Roy Priest to take a no-hostages, hang-tough attitude toward council by resubmitting the same application again five months later.

Finally, it is clear that ARHA has no consistent long-term plan for sustainability. It was ARHA who let Ramsey Homes deteriorate through neglect. Repeated, insistent public questions about set asides or maintenance funds to keep ARHA’s buildings up to par have gone unanswered, as have questions about condo fees and HOA structures. And it takes no crystal ball to foresee that HUD will never again have the funding it did in its glory years: even Wilson said in a recent constituent newsletter that HUD only covers 73 percent of ARHA rents.

The emperor has no clothes, and ARHA has no consistent business model. Its building configurations and the split between market-rate and subsidized units change with every project. Neighbors are told that off-siting is simply impossible, yet ARHA’s strategic plan calls for scattering units from Hopkins-Tancil. Priest has yet to explain why 53 units at Ramsay Homes is the only number that will make the project competitive for tax credits, contrary to the findings of the city’s own tax-credit consultant. And when the city retained an expert to investigate construction costs, they found ARHA had overestimated.

The city needs to reconvene the former economic sustainability task force to analyze ARHA and determine both its long-term viability and the city’s potential liability. Many have failed to notice this, but ARHA is now serving fewer of the poorest renters because it isn’t economically possible.

With its valuable lands now being sold off and HUD funds shrinking, what does ARHA do for a second act? In addition, let the sustainability group also calculate the soft costs that Alexandria taxpayers contribute to the upkeep of ARHA for everything from social services to policing.

On the very night of the controversial February 20 council vote, a robbery occurred on West Street by the Adkins project, followed a week later by gunshots heard by police, who now regularly camp out in the post office parking lot, and a robbery near Old Town Commons.

With two unsolved murders in the Adkins area and pointed criticisms made by ARHA residents over safety and upkeep at the packed community meeting that followed, the question is whether ARHA is serving its tenants or the politicians.

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